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Lucy McDiarmid on a new vol­ume of Irish women’s lit­er­a­ture


What a plea­sure to read, in The His­tory of Mod­ern Irish Women’s Lit­er­a­ture, names like Mir­jana Ren­dulic, Neltah Chadamoyo, Mary Anne Wan­gari Mullen, Brighid Stac, Máire Ní Shéaghdha, Brighid Ní Shíothcháin, Kath­leen Legg, Ma­rina Gam­bold and Nancy Costello. The first three names, those of mi­grant women writ­ers in Ire­land, ap­pear in Anne Mul­hall’s es­say on “life writ­ing and per­sonal tes­ti­mony”. The next three names be­long to “three Kerry school­girls” whose di­aries – pub­lished be­tween 1917 and 1922 – cov­ered “match­mak­ing, cut­ting turf” and do­mes­tic ser­vice in wealthy English-speak­ing house­holds; they ap­pear in the es­say Writ­ing in Irish, 1900-2013 by Ríona Nic Congáil and Máirín Nic Eoin. The last three names are those of sur­vivors of Mag­da­lene laun­dries; their nar­ra­tives, tes­ti­monies to their ex­pe­ri­ence in the laun­dries, are men­tioned in Mul­hall’s es­say.

This ex­cel­lent col­lec­tion of es­says also in­cludes ac­counts of lit­er­a­ture by more fa­mil­iar writ­ers – Maria Edge­worth, Lady Gre­gory, Emily Law­less, Nuala Ní Dhomh­naill, Eiléan Ní Chuil­leanáin – but the pres­ence of lesser-known women along with canon­i­cal writ­ers shows how the book em­bod­ies “the idea of a cul­ture that has not yet come to be in po­lit­i­cal terms”. That phrase was used in the 1981 man­i­festo What is Field Day? and many Irish cul­tural projects have a way of point­ing the so­ci­ety for­ward, as the early Abbey Theatre did with con­tro­ver­sial plays by Synge and O’Casey, as Field Day did with North­ern Irish theatre, as the Field Day An­thol­ogy of Irish Women’s Writ­ing did with its rev­o­lu­tion­ary in­clu­sion of med­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious texts along­side lit­er­ary ones, as the Cam­bridge His­tory of Irish Lit­er­a­ture

(2006) did with its long chronol­ogy and its em­pha­sis on the two na­tional lan­guages, and as this new women’s lit­er­ary his­tory does with its pol­icy of “gen­er­ous in­clu­sion”, a phrase bor­rowed from the ear­lier Cam­bridge his­tory.

The wealth of lit­er­a­ture ac­counted for in the book’s 22 es­says cov­ers a long span, from Digde’s Lament (also known as The Lament of the Old Wo­man of Beare), com­posed c900, to Ebun Akpoveta’s 2013 novel Trapped: Prison With­out Walls. Marie-Louise Coola­han’s fas­ci­nat­ing es­say on Writ­ing be­fore 1700

sit­u­ates women’s writ­ing in Latin, Irish and English in terms of the lit­er­ary in­fra­struc­tures ex­ist­ing in many pe­ri­ods and so­cial con­texts. Fram­ing the vol­ume at the other end is Su­san Cahill’s es­say on Celtic Tiger Fic­tion, which shows how many of the nov­els of the pe­riod “cir­cu­late around trau­matic, re­pressed his­to­ries”. True to the book’s syn­chronic as well as di­achronic in­clu­sive­ness, Cahill also looks at chick lit and crime fic­tion.

The se­ries of es­says on po­etry con­sti­tutes one of the best and rich­est his­to­ries of Irish women po­ets. Sper­anza gets her due, as Matthew Camp­bell (in Po­etry, 1845-1891)

analy­ses lines from her po­ems The Famine Year, The Fate of the Lyrist and the ded­i­ca­tory poem To Ire­land from her 1864 Po­ems. Caro­line Nor­ton, whose fame has been kept alive in Joyce’s Araby, is here pre­sented also in the con­text of Vic­to­rian women’s po­etic tra­di­tions. Lucy Collins’s es­say on Po­etry, 1920 - 1970 re­minds read­ers that “Lit­er­ary cul­ture was over­whelm­ingly mas­cu­line” at the time. The es­say’s fo­cus on five po­ets – Mary Deven­port O’Neill, Blanaid Salkeld, Sheila Wing­field, Freda Laughton, Rhoda Coghill – should change the way 20th-cen­tury Irish po­etry is taught and cer­tainly, as Collins says, cor­rect the im­pres­sion “that there were no women po­ets of note” writ­ing at that time.

By con­trast, Pa­tri­cia Boyle Haber­stroh’s es­say on Po­etry, 1970-Present has an em­bar­ras de richesses to con­sider, in a long pe­riod that con­tin­ues to be a re­nais­sance for Irish women writ­ers in all gen­res. Haber­stroh de­votes at­ten­tion to the less well-known Eithne Strong, Mary O’Don­nell and Anne Le Mar­quand Har­ti­gan, among oth­ers, as well as the bet­ter-known Ea­van Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuil­leanáin, Medbh McGuck­ian and Paula Mee­han. The younger po­ets, those who be­gan pub­lish­ing later in the cen­tury, in­clude Moya Can­non, Mary O’Mal­ley, Rita Ann Hig­gins, Vona Groarke and many oth­ers. One of the plea­sures of the Cam­bridge his­tory is the abil­ity to see them all as part of a lin­eage, if not a con­scious tra­di­tion, be­gin­ning with Laitheog Laídeach, Líadain and Gorm­laith.

The es­says on fic­tion re­veal the ways the Irish novel as­sim­i­lates and trans­forms other na­tional in­flu­ences. James H Mur­phy’s Fic­tion, 1845-1900 in­tro­duces its dis­cus­sion with the idea that “The cul­ture of Ire­land in the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tury was caught be­tween Ir­ish­ness and Bri­tish­ness,” and Ellen McWil­liams’s chap­ter on Di­as­poric and Transna­tional Writ­ing, 1950 - Present looks at the way that “cul­ture of Ire­land” mu­tates in the hy­phen­ated Irish fic­tions of Amer­ica, Canada, and Bri­tain. Mary Mc­Carthy and Maeve Bren­nan thus find their places in Irish women’s lit­er­ary his­tory as well as Kate O’Brien and No­rah Hoult (dis­cussed by Ger­ar­dine Meaney) and Edna O’Brien (in Sinéad Mooney’s es­say). El­iz­a­beth Bowen might also be de­scribed as “caught be­tween Ir­ish­ness and Bri­tish­ness” and the es­say by Pa­tri­cia Cough­lan de­voted to Bowen notes that Bowen re­ferred to her­self as “hy­brid”. Bowen’s “cul­tural and spa­tial dis­clo­ca­tions” also in­clude gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, es­pe­cially “the in­sis­tent pres­ence of les­bian or proto-les­bian char­ac­ters” in much of the fic­tion.

The in­tro­duc­tion to this col­lec­tion points out that pre­vi­ous lit­er­ary his­to­ries of Ire­land have “se­lec­tively con­structed” a canon to “cover or mask” the works that don’t seem to fit a sin­gle na­tional nar­ra­tive. But this his­tory, in­formed by the vi­sions of newer schol­ar­ship, looks at the lit­er­a­ture that ex­ists in the “cracks and fis­sures”. Thus an en­tire chap­ter by Tina O’Toole is de­voted to the pre­vi­ously un­canon­i­cal New Wo­man Writ­ers (Ge­orge Eger­ton, Sarah Grand, Han­nah Lunch and LT Meade) who formed “part of an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion of newly lit­er­ate, em­pow­ered” women. The goal of per­sonal in­de­pen­dence – “women’s bat­tles for au­ton­omy” – con­tin­ues in the late 20th cen­tury fic­tion Anne Fog­a­rty dis­cusses, in the work of Olivia Man­ning, Maura Richards, Maeve Kelly, and oth­ers. Strong es­says by the two ed­i­tors, Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Galllchoir, and by James Kelly, Paige Reynolds, Va­lerie Cogh­lan, Eib­hear Wal­she, Cathy Leeney and Caro­line Ma­gen­nis, make this vol­ume a ne­ces­sity for any­one who wants to un­der­stand the many Irish lit­er­ary tra­di­tions of women writ­ers, an im­mense body of work that the ed­i­tors wisely do not try to fit into a sin­gle par­a­digm.

Back in the year 2000 or there­abouts, when Ire­land had its sec­ond wo­man pres­i­dent, I rang the busi­ness that makes the cal­en­dars with Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Be­han, et al, and asked the man who an­swered the phone why women weren’t in­cluded. “This cal­en­dar sells,” he told me. Surely it has long been time for “the idea of a cul­ture that has not yet come to be in mer­chan­dise” to ap­pear promi­nently on cal­en­dars, tea-tow­els, mag­nets, t-shirts, and mugs. There are more than enough women writ­ers, and they will sell, too.

■ Lucy McDiarmid’s most re­cent mono­graphs are At Home in the Rev­o­lu­tion: what women said and did in 1916 and Po­ets and the Pea­cock Din­ner: the lit­er­ary his­tory of a meal

‘‘ This vol­ume is a ne­ces­sity for any­one who wants to un­der­stand the many Irish lit­er­ary tra­di­tions of women writ­ers, an im­mense body of work that the ed­i­tors wisely do not try to fit into a sin­gle par­a­digm

An Irish writ­ers poster pro­duced by The Irish Times in 2014: “There are more than enough women writ­ers, and they will sell, too”

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